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Saturday, November 20, 2010

Spending Her First Years in Prison

Law Blogger Editor's Note:  From time to time, this blogger visits clients in Michigan's prisons as a roster attorney for the Michigan Appellate Assigned Counsel System.  This blog post is the original content of the CorrectionsOne web site.  It is an interview with Deborah Jiang Stein who was born heroin-addicted in a federal prison in West Virginia and spent the first year of her life there.  Today, she tours women's prisons to speak of hope and rehabilitation to both inmates and prison staff.

What can you say about spending your first year of life in prison? How did that shape you?
I was born and lived my first year in the Federal Women’s Prison in Alderson, West Virginia. I embrace that year as a primal sensory memory, most vivid when I visit now as an inspirational speaker. I recognize familiar sounds -- something I can’t quite name -- and the food service, which hasn’t changed since the prison was built in the 1940’s. Other areas of the compound I feel with a cellular intensity.
Born heroin addicted, I’m told and read in prison files that in my first year I displayed the usual problems of drug-exposed infants -- sensory overload, and physical and emotional delays. It’s taken a lifetime to re-wire my brain and I’m still learning how to manage some of these delays.
Multiple broken attachments, from mother to foster care to adoption, shaped my early life as a timid and angry girl. That first year of attachment to my mother in prison saved me, I believe, because at least I bonded. Later, the movement and losses from mother to foster family to adoptive family took years for me to identify, then grieve, and integrate. This is a lot for a child to metabolize.
You’ve recently written a memoir. Why now?
I began my memoir because several agents and editors suggested I do so. My story is a lesson for others, I’ve come to understand, and touches common themes in many people’s lives, especially themes related to secrets and stigmas. I’ve turned mine from a burden into a blessing as I write and speak about my journey and what I’ve learned. I also write about coming of age in the 1960s, being multiracial, and adopted into a white family.
We all have secrets. Everyone. Mine might be more dramatic than some, but everyone has at least one secret. My story is a testimony to encourage others to face and move beyond their secrets, past whatever pain and shame they hold.
My agent is now shopping my memoir proposal.
You now have a career as a public speaker; what message are you trying to put out there?
These days I’m speaking about the havoc caused by shame and secrets. I’ve learned that it’s not secrets that destroy us -- it’s the keeping of secrets that destroy. I spent years on the run outside the law in a world of crime and drug addiction, all because of the stigma and secrets I held about my prison roots, and other damages I’ve faced.
My story also speaks to the common thread of how we all look for hope in our lives. I’m evidence that even when the odds are stacked against a person, we can rise and overcome adversity.
I see myself as a scout, a guide for women who seek an alternative reality to the one they live. I carry a message of possibility, that we can all somehow live with what’s irreconcilable.
Besides women in prisons, I address professionals in the fields of mental health, child welfare, corrections and other social services, as well as higher education. I’ve learned that professionals in the field also seek personal growth for themselves, not just for the people they serve. 

What are some particular challenges faced by women in prison who are mothers?
One problem is the stigma of prison for a mother and her children.
The biggest wound is the broken bond between mother and child. The list goes on: missing a baby’s first smile; that first step; even the baby throwing up on you. A missed birthday party, first day of school, first date, graduation, everything a parent normally shares with a child.
I’ve read stories about women whose “hormones ricocheted wildly, ached from the milk that would not be nursed out of her swollen breasts, and she [the mother] used heroin smuggled into the prison to deaden the shame and loneliness.” I’m saddened, still, that this is in part my prison mother’s story.
Children born into prisons aren’t something many readers hear about, and even many of our readers (most of whom work in corrections) probably aren’t very aware of the phenomenon. Do you have any numbers on how children born in prisons? How does the system handle these people?

About 85% of women in prison are mothers. Almost 2 million children under the age of eighteen have a parent in prison, and most of these kids are under age ten. That’s a population larger than the city of San Francisco, larger than the state of Delaware. According to the Bureau of Justice, anywhere from 4%-7% of women sentenced are pregnant. This translates into close to 10,000 babies born to mothers in prisons. There are currently seven women’s state prison nurseries. My recent article for the Child Welfare League of America “Babies Behind Bars” highlights these nurseries and the issues involved with babies in prison.

How are pregnant women behind bars viewed by other women?

Since the majority of women in prison are mothers, I’m told for the most part, inmates can relate to those who are pregnant. One “old timer” told me that when she was in jail and in the early stages of her pregnancy in 1974, if she’d needed any protection, her friends would’ve “stood up for her.” 

Many states still shackle pregnant women, and a chain around the belly can harm a fetus. A number of groups lobby to improve the services for pregnant women in prisons. I look forward to seeing these changes, look forward to the day when adequate resources for mental health and addiction in our communities. This alone can help reduce our rising rate of incarceration.

Deborah Jiang Stein is a writer and keynote speaker, and tours women's prisons as an inspirational speaker. She's working on a memoir and short story collection. Visit for more information.

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Anonymous Deborah Jiang Stein said...

Thank you for cross posting this interview with me. A correction, I was removed from the prison at age one, not spending my first 5 years in prison.

November 21, 2010 at 12:07 AM 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am amazed by your story...It is a writing of living in a war zone...I'm speechless at the moment and would like to find out if you have any other articles out there?


December 2, 2010 at 6:13 PM 

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